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Taking the Hit

I’ve talked before about the similarities between writing and martial arts, but the more I study Sanchin-Ryu, the more I appreciate it as a metaphor for writing.  (Or maybe writing is a metaphor for karate, I don’t know.)

One things I struggled with in Sanchin-Ryu is that there’s no blocking.  Oh, you learn pretty quickly to keep your hands up to guard, and there are strikes to intercept an opponent’s attack, not to mention learning to move into your opponent to disrupt their attack.  But no blocks.

Because you’re going to get hit. No matter how long you study blocking, no matter how fast you are.  Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan … they all get hit.  So we focus on acting instead of reacting.  On controlling the confrontation instead of trying to guess and deflect our opponent’s strikes.  On learning to take the hit, minimize the damage, and return that energy.

If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to get hit.  Some of those hits are going to hurt, as with my very first submission to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, which came back with a note “You must have had a point to this story … but I have no idea what it was.”  Or learning my French publisher wouldn’t buy the third goblin book because sales had been lousy.

Other hits are easier to shrug off, such as a negative review of The Stepsister Scheme which said “the book goes from happy girl power romp … to a few things that I’m sure could be found in an S&M porno.”

You can’t block every hit.  Some of them are going to knock you on your ass, like the day I learned Baen Books had withdrawn an offer to publish my novels.

Growing up, I remember the kids who would go crazy when hit, flailing about like a cross between Gonzo and the Tasmanian Devil. That happens with writers, too.  It’s not pretty.

You’re going to get hit.  Rejections and bad reviews, not to mention jealous friends or peers, trouble with editors and/or publishers, online trolls, flamewars, and so much more.  And it’s going to hurt.  Part of being a writer is learning to take the hit.

I think the most helpful thing is to regain your stance.  A good hit steals your balance.  Take it back.  Your writing career could span decades.  This is only one review, one rejection, one setback.  In the case of my French publisher, I had to remind myself that other aspects of my career were still going well.  (Happy side note: I now have a new French publisher which has picked up the first two princess books.)

In the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley, I found a way to send that energy right back.  I took her rejection as a challenge to write an even better story, one she would have to buy.  (I sold my first story to her in 1999, four years later.) 

Know which hits require a response, and how to respond.  Random Amazon reviewer?  You have to shrug it off.  Publisher refusing to pay you?  Start with one well-targeted strike from SFWA’s Griefcom.

Keep your focus.  Don’t let an opponent dictate how things are going to go.  One of the reasons I banned an individual from my LiveJournal last week is that I simply don’t have the time or energy for it; I have a book to finish.

And most importantly, remember to breathe.

Other suggestions or advice on how to take a literary hit?  Or how not to?

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 61 comments — Leave a comment )
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(Deleted comment)
Jul. 26th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
Wait, does that mean you're working in the world of someone else's copyrighted stories? Because that does carry some serious potential problems. (Or I might be completely misunderstanding what you're saying.)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - jimhines - Jul. 26th, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - jimhines - Jul. 28th, 2010 01:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Jul. 26th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
I have to say it...

Pst, Jim! It's TaSmanian Devil... :)

Your token Aussie (whose husband has just been visiting Tasmania last week!).
Jul. 26th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
But ... but everyone calls him Taz!

(Fixed now. Thanks!)
Jul. 26th, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
My background is a traditional tkd curriculum with crosstraining in hapkido, American kempo, kali/escrima, aiki-jutsu, jui-jutsu, and boxing. As someone who's from the block-and-counter school, the crosstraining was the *best*. Especially the boxing and the jui-jutsu. In a striking art like tkd, when the arms get tired, kick, and vice versa. With boxing, you get hit. Lots. We always mixed in boxing with the regular curriculum and taught students that too many martial artists work far too hard avoiding getting hit. If your sparring partner is close enough to strike you, then guess what? Return it. It's a contact sport. Period.

However, the jui-jutsu and aiki-jutsu training? My buddy/trainer kept fussing at me in our early sessions: "You're too far away. How do you expect to work from a clinch?"

Me: "I'm used to working from leg-distance for kicks."

Him: "Stop thinking like a tkd guy. You're not an instructor during this training, either. You're a student."

How frakkin' awesome! Really, that helped me get out of my comfort zone, training took off, and with the boxing on top of that, man . . .

So, all that crosstraining eventually helps remind me to get out of my comfort zones and sometimes embrace/clinch with ideas/POVs/whatever I might not otherwise engage in writing.

Taking literary hits? Sometimes you really don't have to block, just fade a tad off-center.

And keep moving. ;)
Jul. 26th, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Agreed.
I did TKD for several years growing up. With the Sanchin-Ryu, I'm told I've got very good kicking skills. But it's interesting to see how easily some of the black belts counter those kicks simply by stepping closer.

It messes with my personal space, but like you say, it opens up all sorts of new possibilities :-)

"And keep moving."


Edited at 2010-07-26 01:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Agreed. - selfavowedgeek - Jul. 26th, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Agreed. - jimhines - Jul. 26th, 2010 02:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Agreed. - mzmadmike - Jul. 26th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
Writing is a lot like any other customer service work --including my line of work, IT-- there will always be someone who doesn't like the job you do. It doesn't matter what you do, you can't please everybody. There's always someone who wants the moon, and you're not obliged to deliver said moon to their server.

I guess one thing that makes it harder for writers is that the nature of the career is solitary. Sure, there are people you can hang with, and there's the Word Wars crew, but the actual creation process itself comes from within. Just you and the page (or screen). When your interaction with others --editors, agents, readers-- is the equivalent of dozens upon dozens of peer reviews, yeah it can get stressful.

You develop a tough skin, shrug it off, and keep on going as best you can. Getting a support network together helps as well.
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
Much like the fighting example, in most cases when you're in a fight, you're on your own. (Unless you're collaborating, I guess.) But like you say, there's plenty of support and training available to help you prepare for it.
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:09 pm (UTC)
Speaking as a martial artist and a writer both, you're completely right about all of this. I think a key necessary item in both, also, is confidence. You have to be confident about what you're doing, or you're going to take every hit as an ass-knocker. You've gotta be certain of who you are and what you're doing and that you are completely capable of winning/writing well. Writing is really often (for me anyway) about so much that's internal... you have to be sure of it, to be sure at the very least that you have something worth saying, even if the prose isn't coming out right, even if you can't make the one idea work the way you want. You have to just not be afraid to lose, IMO. It's something I also think that, luckily, you can learn. Not everyone is born with confidence or even has confidence nurtured into them. But it's a learnable skill, the same as any martial form is.

Thanks so much for this thoughtful post!
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:20 pm (UTC)
Adding that I come from a Shaolin background, meaning that balance is paramount, and confidence is a large part of balance. :)
(no subject) - jimhines - Jul. 26th, 2010 02:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shoiryu - Jul. 26th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - zelda888 - Jul. 26th, 2010 02:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shoiryu - Jul. 26th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tracy_d74 - Jul. 26th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC)
I come from a different MA background (aikido), so for me, the analogy would be not so much taking the hit as redirecting the force of the attack. So, in writing, I would look at it as taking the force of the rejection/criticism/jealousy and redirecting it to keep from getting taken down. Don't like my book? Great, I'll use that to fuel my next effort to be even better. Think I can't write? Wait until I take that negative thought and turn it back to show myself just how well I *can* write. Better luck next time? Yes, it will be, because I am flowing with your rejection and using it to power my next effort.

Of course, you can't always avoid the hits, as you say, but you can try to use them to push you into your next effort and make it even better. Circles and arcs and movement. And, ideally, grace -- lots of grace.

In either (or any) case, I think it comes down to a healthy does of ego as a writer. Not so much "I rock, and you are all idiots not to recognize it!" ego, but rather "I know I'm good and will get to the point where others will be able to see it, too." The ability to slog on through, either taking the hits or mentally re-directing them, and still believe in yourself enough to keep sending out, to keep putting words on paper, to keep "fighting", whether you are already published or trying to break in.

I think MA works as a good metaphor because, like writing, when you are out there on the mat, you are alone in terms of who you have to fall back on. Same with writing: in the end, you have to believe in yourself and your craft, because you are the only one who can throw the next punch/write the next story.
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
I definitely agree with you that ego/confidence are important (referring to shoiryu's comments just above this one). It lets you take the risks, knowing you'll probably get knocked down sooner or later, but also that you'll be able to recover and get back up. (Some of us more gracefully than others, admittedly...)
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:17 pm (UTC)
This reminds me of my recent fencing lessons.

I'm taking lessons from two different groups with two very different strategies. One group is all about controlling the hit, hitting as lightly as is strictly necessary. The other group is about form and getting your opponent good and fast.

The group who is more eager to hit me definitely hurts more, but I also learn a lot more. So there's something to be said for throwing yourself out there in minimal armor and just taking a good smack to the head. You'll stumble and be dazed, but then you'll jump back in with a whole new set of knowledge that you can use to your advantage.
Jul. 26th, 2010 03:06 pm (UTC)
Interesting, and it fits with what we've done in Sanchin-Ryu. The lower ranks don't spar at all, but when you get into the higher ranks, there's no padding or protection whatsoever. In theory, the higher ranks have better control, and you're not punching to kill anyone, but it also means you start to get experience with actually taking a hit and (hopefully) bouncing back.
(no subject) - misha_mcg - Jul. 26th, 2010 05:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:22 pm (UTC)
I feel you are kind of like the Jedi master of all of us other struggling writers. Your approachable posts and good nature really help shy people like me know published authors aren't magically removed from all of us or don't still face challenges in the published world.

Brace yourself while I extend your metaphor to the actual act of writing!:

What I like about martial arts is the thrill of it: the discipline of focus. In a sparring match, your brain is in the middle of careful thinking-- when/where is the next strike? what do I do instead-- and pure reflexes. There's no room in your noggin for "is the oven still on? omg did i forget to lock my apartment? oh noes!"

It's like that with the actual art of writing. If you've got a good thread going, you are just pounding out words without knowing they're there. You are headless to grievous spelling and grammatical errors.

If you've got a good story at your fingertips, it's like a great sparring match at your school: you keep going even if you hit a snag, just kinda take it and mow forward. As long as you don't over-think things (which I used to do ALL THE TIME in both karate AND writing) you're not going to stumble as much.

When I took karate, I was always worried about being "perfect" with what I was doing. And I was scared of getting hit. Same with writing, until a few years ago. (shoiryu helped me a lot. ♥) And now when we she's teaching me some new moves, I'm not afraid to get hit. (Or make grievous grammatical errors. That's what editing is for.)
Jul. 26th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
Aw, thank you. I don't think anyone's ever called me a writing Jedi before :-)

I still overthink things all the time with karate. I'm making progress in that I recognize when I do it, at least. (You can see the wheels turning, and it makes me much choppier in my movements.)

With writing, I finally had to give myself permission to fail, which let me focus simply on the writing without worrying or overthinking in that moment. (I suspect I need to do the same thing with karate, actually.) It helped so much. Like you say, you do hit snags and stumble, but you keep on moving.
Jul. 26th, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
Interesting analogy. I don't think any writer can avoid those hits. And more importantly, you can't avoid the hits that have already landed (e.g. reviews).

I'm not into martial arts, but I do play chess, and getting beat up by more experienced players is one of the best ways of becoming a better player. In a game you also have to suffer the beatings your opponent inflict on you--but if you follow your own plan, you're likely to win in the end.

::Ends pocket philosophy and refers readers to the wisdom of Jim's post::

Edited at 2010-07-26 02:59 pm (UTC)
Jul. 26th, 2010 03:01 pm (UTC)
My mantra for those hits is "What can I learn from this?"
Jul. 26th, 2010 03:08 pm (UTC)
I still want to learn which part of Stepsister is like S&M porn! :-)
(no subject) - sartorias - Jul. 26th, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jul. 26th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - swan_tower - Jul. 26th, 2010 07:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2010 03:10 pm (UTC)
No martial arts experience here (I've always gravitated toward activities in which I have at least four feet of personal space) and no dreams of being a writer, but I'm going to take this and direct it at my uncooperative dissertation research. After having all the compound that was the culmination of six months' work 'accidentally' trashed last spring and now having trouble reconciling the new compounds with the necessary environment for taking measurements, it's been an extended lesson in moving on. All the hits I've taken have been things I can't change; I can only control my own reactions.

Thanks for the reminder that at times it's what you choose to do after being hit that determines how you remember the experience.
Jul. 26th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
A recent experience in this vein:

After approaching something like the 99th percentile mark on my current novel, I had to stop, back up, and make myself realize I did not have a usable manuscript. I didn't even have a draft. I had a bunch of material that could in theory be reworked into the story I had in mind, but it hadn't taken that form. It digressed and rambled; it had become a discordant modal ramble instead of a symphony.

I've thrown out whole manuscripts before. It's not something I don't know about. It's just tough to choke down, because it feels like you're throwing a piece of your life away.

One previous book I worked on was completely axed. I got maybe 100,000 words into what could have been a ms. twice that length. It did not work. I killed it and started over. I got maybe 40-50,000 words into that version before I realized it wasn't working either. I killed it, too, and ended up saving the main character for a book that actually worked: Summerworld.

And now I gotta do it again, but dammit, I know if I don't do this I'm gonna end up with something that simply isn't readable, and that I can't put my name on with a clear conscience.

I sat down this past weekend and started writing the outline/treatment for the reworked version of the story. It's still not completely pulled together, but at least now I have a clearer idea of what I should be doing and what I shouldn't.

In sum: Some of the toughest hits you get dealt are the ones you deal out to yourself -- because you know you have the option of dodging, of saying no, of telling yourself Maybe it isn't all that bad. But I know it's that bad; I have too much experience in sifting the good from the bad to tell myself any differently.
Jul. 26th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
I'm amused to note that the analogy holds up here as well. I can't count the number of times I've managed to punch or strike myself in karate when working on a new move. As one sensei said, "If you haven't punched yourself in the face at least once when learning roku (vertical elbow strike), then you're not learning it right."

Good luck with the rewrite. I've heard rumors of people who can get a novel right the first time through, but I've never understood how...
(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Jul. 26th, 2010 09:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 26th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
Heh heh. I sent a submission to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine once and was informed that "suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by the neck until it is dead".

'Course, now, my whole problem with the idea of taking a hit is that I can't quite figure out why people are all the time trying to hit each other. Just doesn't seem like a good time to me. I'd rather sit around drinking tea and gluing brightly colored sand to things...

This may be why I'm not into martial arts or publishing. *grin*
Jul. 26th, 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
MZB was famous for her rejections. I think for a certain generation of struggling writers, they became a badge of honor.

Hm ... I wouldn't say that the goal is necessarily to learn how to hit each other. In fact, there's a strong philosophy in most martial arts that if you reach the point of hitting someone, you've already failed. (Which doesn't stop us from practicing for that eventuality, of course.)
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jul. 26th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Jul. 27th, 2010 12:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - serialbabbler - Jul. 27th, 2010 01:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 26th, 2010 06:37 pm (UTC)
You know, I'm not sure I could bring myself to scratch/dent a brand new toy like that. I'm far too obsessive ... but I can also see the value in the tradition. Would probably ease some of my stress.

I definitely agree that failing, and then learning to move beyond that failure and learn from it, is a very powerful lesson, one more people need to learn.

One of the very first lessons I remember from Sanchin-Ryu was being told to repeat "I will mess up!" The instructor managed to mess up just a few minutes later. He just grinned and said "I told you!"
Jul. 26th, 2010 05:31 pm (UTC)
My only form of MA is Tai Chi, which I studied for many years. Most people don't think of it as a MA, because of its generally peaceful nature, but that was its origin.

In Tai Chi, you are never the aggressor. You keep your center, and respond in the most minimal way possible to redirect the force of your attacker so it doesn't harm you.

This works for writing, too.

Never waste your energy responding to the hits. Keep your center, and move as smoothly as possible into the next stance. Flow with the circumstances of your writing career with grace and only use the energy necessary for each task.

If that doesn't work--eat cookies.

The Wisdom of Master Deborah
Jul. 26th, 2010 06:30 pm (UTC)
As I understand it, there's a pretty wide range of Tai Chi, from the slow, dancelike style you see on TV to the more martial style.

And I very much support the cookie advice!
(no subject) - deborahblakehps - Jul. 26th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jul. 26th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - deborahblakehps - Jul. 26th, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jim C. Hines


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